Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Summer 2001 Vol.97 No.1
Feature Stories
When Worlds Meet
Visions of Oberlin
Safety Man
[cover story] Caught in the Act
Round Robin Takes Flight
Message from the President
Around Tappan Square
  Safety Man

by Dan Chaon

continued from page 2...

Most of the time, Sandi is okay. Everything feels anesthetized. The worst part is when her mother calls. Sandi's mother still lives on the outskirts of Denver, in the small suburb where Sandi grew up; her voice on the phone is boxy and distant. Mostly, Sandi's mother wants to talk about her job, her patients, whom Sandi has come to know like characters in a book--Brad, the comatose boy who'd been in a bicycle accident, and whose thick, beautiful hair her mother likes to comb; Adrienne, who had drug-induced brain damage, and who compulsively hides things in her bra; little old Mr. Hudgins, who suffers from confusion after a small stroke. Sometimes he feels certain that Sandi's mother is his wife. But the cast of her mother's stories is always changing, and Sandi has learned not to become to attached to any one of them. Once, when she asked after a patient that her mother had talked about frequently, her mother had sighed forgetfully. "Oh, didn't I tell you?" she said. "He passed away a couple of weeks ago."

Sometimes, Sandi's mother likes to talk about death or other philosophical issues. One night after dinner, while Sandi is drinking tea at the kitchen table and the girls are watching music videos on television, Sandi's mother calls to ask whether she believes in an afterlife.

"I realized," Sandi's mother says. "I don't know this about you."

Sandi sighs. "I don't know, Mom," she says. "I really haven't given it much thought."

"Oh, you must have some opinion!" her mother says. She has that bright, nursely twinkle in her voice that makes Sandi cringe.

"Really," Sandi says. "It's not something I want to talk about. I mean, I hope that there's some part of us that lives on. That's about as far as I've imagined at this point."

"Hmm..." her mother says thoughtfully. "I'm undecided, myself. I don't think most people are interesting enough to have souls." And her voice takes on a musing quality that Sandi recognizes with grim resignation. "Do you know that the living now outnumber the dead? You understand what I'm saying? It's the result of the global population boom. There are 6 billion people alive on this planet, and that's more than have died in all of recorded history! It's a fact."

"Where did you hear that?" Sandi asks. "That doesn't seem accurate."

"Oh, it's true," Sandi's mother says brightly. "I read it!" Then she sighs. "Oh, Sandi," she says. "I wish your father and I had given you kids some religious training when you were young. Religion would be very helpful to you right now."

"Oh, really?" Sandi says. She thinks of Uncle Sammy
and his packets of devil-dust.

"Well, you are that type of person, sweetheart," her mother says firmly. "You've always been that way, ever since you were little. I'm very comfortable with doubt, and I thought you'd be the same way, because you're my child. But you're not that way at all!"

Sandi doesn't know what to say to her. "Comfortable with doubt?" What does that mean? Where has her mother picked up language like that? "Okay," Sandi says passively. She has been reading a lot of self-help books with the same tone. They spoke like this--"coping," "coming to terms," "finding closure." As if such a thing is possible.

At the IRS, sometimes people are threatened. The woman in the next cubicle, Janice, has been getting letters from a man who wants to kill and eat her. It's not funny, Sandi feels, though Janice often pretends it is. She reads his letters aloud--gruesome descriptions of what this person would like to do to her--and her voice takes on a dry, comic quality, as if it is nothing more than an anecdote. "It's like something out of a movie!" Janice exclaims. And Sandi loves Janice's easy, unfrightened confidence.

Still, when she and Janice go out to lunch, Sandi wonders if the letter writer might be watching, following them. As they pass through the lobby of the building where they work, Sandi watches the faces. The man will look outwardly normal, Sandi feels. She lets her eyes rest on the lecherous security guards at the front desk, the skinny one and the handsome one. She scans over the heavy-set man who sits before his open briefcase, eating a sandwich; beyond him, three young men in identical suits and haircuts burst into laughter; through the window behind them, Sandi can see the figures of people walking by on the sidewalk, their shapes hazy in the windblown snow, the small cadre of secretaries huddled against the side of the building, smoking cigarettes.

Once, not long ago, she walked past the standing ashtray they convene around. She remembers looking down. There, among the slender, lipstick-stained cigarette butts, which stood up in the gravel like dead trees, she saw a tooth--a human tooth, lying there. She stood there staring at it. What's happening to the world? she thought

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